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US Needs to Be Better Prepared for Extreme Weather, Ecological Changes Resulting from Climate Change

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Ecological changes in the 21st Century

Climate change will cause changes in plant communities across nearly half the Earth’s land surface by 2100, driving conversion of nearly 40 percent of land-based ecosystems from one major ecological community type – forest, grassland or tundra – toward another, according to a new computer study conducted by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The study’s results may put what’s been a record year for US weather-related disasters in a much broader perspective. While it’s impossible to draw a causal link between any one weather event and global warming or climate change, climate change is probably increasing the intensity of some disasters, such as the Texas drought, according to experts from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Addressing attendees at a briefing on Capitol Hill, AAAS’s representatives said that regardless of cause, the frequency and intensity of weather-related disasters is increasing, which is causing greater financial losses than ever. They cautioned that governments and societies need to be better prepared, according to an Insurance News Net report.

Mounting Financial Costs of Climate Change

It’s not useful to debate whether or not climate change exacerbated by humans caused or causes any particular weather event Jay Gulledge, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), told Insurance News Net, adding that statistical trends are consistent with scientists’ expectations of climate change.

Texas state climatologist and Texas A&M professor of atmospheric science John Nielsen-Gammon noted that La Niña was the triggering event for this year’s drought in Texas, which is expected to last through next summer. He added that climate change likely intensified the drought by adding about 1 degree Fahrenheit to annual average temperatures in the state. Drought as severe as this year’s could be more likely as a result of ongoing climate change, he added, although more research is needed to confirm that.

Ultimately, increasingly severe and frequent weather events pose a serious risk management problem for public officials and society, and we need to be better prepared, Gulledge said. “This is a risk problem, and we have to manage it as a risk problem,” he said at the 2 December briefing, which was entitled, Drowning and Drought: Extreme Weather Impacts on Our Economy and Society.

JPL-Caltech Climate Change Study

The parts of Earth not covered by land or desert are projected to undergo a 3o percent change in plant cover at minimum, and that means humans as well as plants and animals will need to adapt and in many cases relocate.

JPL and Cal Tech researchers, who investigated how plant life on Earth is likely to react over the next three centuries in response to rising levels of greenhouse gases, published their findings in the journal Climatic Change.

The results show rising emissions will increase ecological stress and change in Earth’s biosphere, with growing numbers of plant and animal species competing for survival. Species turnover will be significant, as some species invade areas occupied by others, according to the researchers’ report.

Besides altering plant communities, “the study predicts that climate change will disrupt the ecological balance between interdependent and often endangered plant and animal species, reduce biodiversity and adversely affect Earth’s water, energy, carbon and other element cycles,” according to JPL’s news release.

“For more than 25 years, scientists have warned of the dangers of human-induced climate change,” said Jon Bergengren, a scientist who led the study while a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech. “Our study introduces a new view of climate change, exploring the ecological implications of a few degrees of global warming. While warnings of melting glaciers, rising sea levels and other environmental changes are illustrative and important, ultimately, it’s the ecological consequences that matter most.”

Image Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
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